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Harris' race takes one hit, then another

The manager of her Senate campaign abruptly quits and a new poll shows the Sarasota Republican trailing Nelson by double digits.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
Published November 16, 2005

WASHINGTON - Rep. Katherine Harris's campaign manager abruptly resigned Tuesday, leaving her rocky campaign for U.S. Senate without a leader as the Sarasota Republican continues to face trouble raising money and securing support.

And there was more bad news for Harris on Tuesday.

A new Quinnipiac University poll showed her trailing incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by 24 percentage points - the latest tally of many that show her down by double digits.

Jim Dornan, who ran Harris' campaign for less than four months, said Tuesday he left because he had fulfilled his goal of putting a team in place for the November 2006 election.

Dornan and others with the campaign said he always planned to leave before the election, though neither he nor Harris said his role was temporary when he was hired, and his departure wasn't mentioned in interviews last week.

The two were known to argue, and Dornan initially released a statement Tuesday citing conflicts with Harris over scheduling and strategy, but he later said those comments were premature and mistaken.

"Katherine's going down fast," said David E. Johnson, a Republican strategist and pollster with Strategic Vision, who is not affiliated with any candidate in the U.S. Senate race. "He was probably feeling the campaign was not going in the direction that it needed to go."

Harris has been struggling for credibility within Republican circles since announcing her candidacy this summer.

For months, Republican leaders in Washington and Tallahassee publicly sought alternatives to face Nelson even after Harris had expressed her intentions to run. Overtures were made to state House Speaker Allan Bense and MSNBC personality and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough.

Then, she surprised even her advocates with a weak fundraising effort, reporting just under $500,000 during her first fundraising quarter. Nelson raised more than $1.9-million.

Johnson said the Harris campaign had hoped to unveil prominent Republican endorsements by now. Instead, last week Harris found herself again asking Sen. Elizabeth Dole, head of the powerful committee that assists Republicans running for the Senate, to go public with her support.

After the meeting, Harris refused to comment except to say her conversation with Dole went great. She also said at the time she was not ready for media scrutiny about the campaign. "This is a year out," she said. "Let's put it in perspective."

Nelson, who won his first term in 2000 with just 51 percent of the vote, is one of the GOP's top Senate targets next year. Harris, who was Florida's chief elections official during the bitter 2000 presidential recount, went to Congress in 2002 and won re-election last year after being talked out of running for the Senate in 2004.

In the survey released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University, Nelson was favored by 55 percent of the registered voters polled; 31 percent favored Harris, the state's only announced Republican candidate for Senate.

"The election's still a year away and, whatever disarray there is right now in the Harris campaign won't matter months from now," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. "We expect this will be a close race, because the Republican Party and its front groups will spend millions trying to smear Bill Nelson."

Some polls show Harris continues to rate low with non-Republican voters, a lingering effect from her role in the 2000 presidential vote recount, prompting some Republicans to want another candidate.

Bense was asked last Thursday by reporters if he had any lingering interest in the U.S. Senate.

"No," he said. "You never say never, but I'm very focused on what I'm doing today, right now. I have not explored the U.S. Senate issue since I made my decision months ago."

Dornan said his decision to leave had nothing to do with the viability of Harris' campaign or the possibility anyone else might enter the race.

"Everything is fine. I am not leaving on bad terms," he said. "I think Katherine is a great candidate, the strongest candidate and I think she is going to be the next U.S. senator."

Jamie Miller, a political consultant and the Republican Party of Florida's former executive director of party development, will serve as acting campaign manager. Dornan, a veteran GOP consultant touted for his successful campaigns in other states, said he will remain an adviser to the campaign, but has not worked out details about whether he will be paid. He said he will field offers from others after the holidays.

Other Harris consultants include longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins, President Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign chairman, and Ed Goeas of the polling and strategic research firm, the Tarrance Group.

"We greatly appreciate Jim's efforts as campaign manager. He has created a great team with excellent strategies and tactics to follow a road map for victory," Harris said in a statement.

"Jim's talents and interests in my campaign were principally of a consulting nature and he will continue in that role."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 16, 2005, 01:08:07]

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